Biotech team going viral to combat cancer

Jan 22 2020

Professor Darren Shafren

The scientific team behind Viralytics, a Hunter-based biotech firm bought in 2018 by Merck for a record $502 million, is reuniting for a new private venture aiming to develop cutting-edge cancer therapies.

ImmVirX, as the new company is known, has been established with support from the University of Newcastle Research Associates (TUNRA), recruiting key research staff who were pivotal in Viralytics’ medical and commercial success.

Professor Darren Shafren, from the University of Newcastle, is the Chief Scientific Officer and Dr Malcolm McColl has been reappointed as Managing Director and CEO.

The company, whose name is an amalgamation of Immuno-oncology, Virus and X (combination therapy), will be based in office and laboratory space in the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) Building, while TUNRA, much like it did for Viralytics, will assist with its commercialisation objectives.

“It’s a similar strategy to the one we employed with Viralytics, using a selected virus to increase the efficacy of the new immune checkpoint inhibitors when treating tumours,” Professor Shafren said.

“But where we previously targeted melanoma, ImmVirX will focus on colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, head and neck cancer, and liver cancer. We want to develop RNA viruses that will induce subtle changes within the tumour and enhance the therapies.”

The research team has already begun investigating several potential viral candidates that target different receptor molecules than that of Cavatak, the oncolytic virus developed by Viralytics.

Professor Shafren says the goal is to build a body of pre-clinical and manufacturing data ahead of a substantial capital-raising venture within 12 months, followed by early stage clinical evaluation.

“We really want to help patients,” he said. “We had some exciting times at Viralytics where we saw our research translate into real clinical benefits, and that’s what we’re hoping to achieve again.

“Viruses have been studying our immune system much longer than we’ve been studying them, of course, and we firmly believe that immune therapies will be the backbone of future oncology treatments.

“The support from the University and HMRI provides us with great expertise and facilities to really hit the ground running. To work with TUNRA again after the success of Viralytics was an easy decision to make. We know the value it can provide, and it’s a formula that’s worked for us previously when looking to take things to market.”

TUNRA, who oversaw the Merck acquisition, one of the biggest biotech deals in Australian history, will also provide ImmVirX with personnel, HR, accounting and administration support.

University of Newcastle Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President Global Engagement and Partnerships, Professor Kevin Hall, said the team’s decision to link up with TUNRA again underlines the value of the support it can provide.

“The success of Viralytics was a wonderful example of how research can drive economic growth for Australia, create jobs, and solve major world issues,” Professor Hall said. “We’re extremely pleased to help support Professor Shafren and his team again with this new venture, and we’re excited about the potential of further breakthroughs in cancer treatments.”

Hunter Medical Research Institute Director, Professor Tom Walley, believes ImmVirX will be a good fit for the HMRI Building, being based alongside other multidisciplinary teams to accelerate the research and development process.

“One of our key strategic goals is to create health and wealth for the region by diversifying our research revenues and partnering with industry,” Professor Walley said. “ImmVirX ticks all those boxes while enhancing our foundations in discovery science and creating new employment in the region.”

HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.